Stuck. Damn!

Stuck in the Wilderness

I am careful to either avoid places where I might get stuck, or work on crossings beforehand to ease the passage. But sometimes it just takes fate, or a slight error in judgement, and then…

This little ditch seemed minor. The front wheels actually mounted the step-up quite gamely, but then the rear end of the body caught on the slab of rock with the rear wheel spinning in fresh air. The jack point was too low off the rock to get the hi-lift in, and there was simply no space to crawl under the vehicle to get a bottle jack under the chassis or axle. The result? Two hours to get out of this little spot.

Getting stuck takes time – a day, or even more if you get really bogged down, like the time when my long-time wandering companion Gerhard (very sadly shot dead in a robbery) and me got stuck in the Nuanetzi valley area of Zimbabwe. I quote a piece from my book The Wanderers (Safari Press):

Gerhard and me were picking our way through the bush quite handily when suddenly, without any warning, the ground simply seemed to give way below the vehicle, and we came to an unplanned standstill. We first tried to ignore the obvious; perhaps, by applying the usual tricks like rocking, a bit back and then forward, or reversing we could get out without even getting out feet in the mud, but we were stuck!

Investigation confirmed our worst fears: We were down to our axles, about four or so metres into a soft patch of some forty metres wide. It looked firm on the surface, but actually it was rotten-soft underneath. It probably had some impermeable rock below ground that prevented the water from draining away. It was simply slosh in soil disguise!

We had a bush pick, hand axe, a shovel and a high-lift jack with us – no winch. One could use the high-lift jack as a makeshift winch in emergencies, but it is tedious because the available travel along its lifting shaft is limited, which means one has to frequently stop and shorten the anchor chain.

We decided it would be best to try and get out backwards.
We first tried to jack the rear of the vehicle up with the high-lift so that we could pack some branches under the rear wheels, but the chassis was so deep into the mud that we couldn’t get the jack under a suitable lift point at the back. We had to dig a sizable hole half under the vehicle, which required considerable effort in the sticky stuff, and fashion a sort of platform from logs and branches that we had chopped for the jack to stand on. This didn’t work, because despite our best efforts we couldn’t get the platform stable enough in the yielding material, so that the jack kept slipping off it and pressing into the mud instead of lifting the vehicle.

We then decided that we should take some stuff off the back to make the vehicle lighter – perhaps we would then be able to lift it with the jack. It was by then around twelve o’clock, and, as is usually the case after rain, the sun had an especially vicious sting to it. Taking off the heavy stuff and getting it away from the back of the vehicle required a strenuous effort in the knee-deep mud, and of course our efforts were soon salted with ever more richly flavoured swearwords as the heat and the exertion began to take effect. However, our jack-on-platform plan still didn’t work – it wasn’t the weight that was the problem; it was the softness of the mud. 

We then decided that we had a chance to winch it out backwards if we tied the top of the jack to the vehicle, and its lift point to an anchor outside the muddy area. Unfortunately the nearest anchor point was too far away to reach with the length of chain we had with us, and the piece of heavy duty cargo webbing we used to extend it had so much stretch in it that all of the (limited) travel on the jack was taken up by stretch, and none by vehicle-moving-out-of-mud.

It was by then getting into the afternoon, and we were highly frustrated and short tempered, which was not good for the friendship. We decided to sit down and rest a bit under a tree. We were victims of the law of diminishing options. With all the struggling around the vehicle the area had become ever more slushy, so that getting out was becoming ever more difficult. We probably had one more chance left before our situation would become really desperate. So it had to be a really good plan. We decided we would carefully formulate the options and then decide on the best one.

It seemed we had three options: We could bury the spare wheel to the rear of the vehicle in firm ground, but close enough so that we could hitch it to the jack with just the chain, and then simply jack the vehicle out backwards as we had previously attempted unsuccessfully with the webbing. This was feasible, but it would require quite a lot of digging, and there was always the chance that we would not be able to bury the wheel deep enough, and that it would just be pulled out of its hole when we applied real force.

The second option was digging a large enough hole behind the vehicle to place the wheel in, and then use it as a platform to place the jack on, and execute our original plan of lifting the rear so that we could put material under the wheels. This was feasible, but it would require as much digging as with burying the wheel, but up to the knees in really sticky material, and half underneath the vehicle too. On top of that, the process might have to be repeated if we couldn’t get it out in one go. It seemed too ghastly to consider.

Out third option was simply for me to run back to camp, get as many people together as I could, and have them come push us out. It was about fifteen kilometres to camp, so running was not a problem at all, but we weren’t sure that the three people we had in camp would be enough to push the vehicle out – the mud where we would have to find footholds was very soft and slippery by now. All three options had a chance, but none seemed to be close to certain.

Then, after some staring at the vehicle and scratching of the chins and fed-up sighing, we came up with another option: We would use the spare wheel as a jacking platform, but instead of trying to dig it in deep enough to get the jack under a suitable lifting point beneath the vehicle, we would use the chain to make a sling from the trailer hitch at the back, and put the jack’s lifting point into that. It would require a practically achievable amount of digging that could, if necessary, be repeated.

It seemed very feasible, but we decided to take out some insurance: After we had jacked up the vehicle and placed enough traction material below and behind the rear wheels, we would use the jack and webbing as an additional pull mechanism as we had attempted before, just to give the vehicle some initial momentum.

This plan still required a fair amount of digging, and a lot of chopping and dragging up of branches, but it worked reasonably well – we had to repeat the jacking procedure only once, when the vehicle slipped sideways off our “traction surface” of branches and leaves. It was close to sunset by the time we finally had the stuff loaded again, and were on our way to the camp, exhausted, completely covered in mud, and disgusted with allowing ourselves to get stuck.

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